13 December 2007

How Much Greenhouse Gas Emission Is Too Much?

How much will you have to cut your emissions?

Do you believe some people have a greater right to pollute than others? If so, you can stop reading right here.

But maybe a student in America, a sarariman in Japan, a bureaucrat in Brussels and a farmer in India each have an equal right to generate greenhouse gases. Each has a right to aspire to a good life, and will need to live within the greenhouse gas emission limits needed to keep the Earth from tipping into climate-change catastrophe.

So use a carbon footprint calculator to estimate your current emissions. (There is one here; remember to come back.) Add up all your emissions sources (car, home, flights).

Then compare your results (in metric tonnes of 2205 lb.) with the emissions of others, and with the targets humankind is going to have to achieve on a percapita basis.

We each have a lot of adjusting to do.

10 December 2007

Nobel Committee: Climate Change Threatens Peace

"We are what is wrong, and we must make it right."--Al Gore

In the press release announcing the Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee said, "By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC and Al Gore, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is seeking to contribute to a sharper focus on the processes and decisions that appear to be necessary to protect the world’s future climate, and thereby to reduce the threat to the security of mankind. Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man’s control."

Mr. Gore said in his "Nobel Lecture" acceptance speech:

We must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war. These prior struggles for survival were won when leaders found words at the 11th hour that released a mighty surge of courage, hope and readiness to sacrifice for a protracted and mortal challenge.

These were not comforting and misleading assurances that the threat was not real or imminent; that it would affect others but not ourselves; that ordinary life might be lived even in the presence of extraordinary threat; that Providence could be trusted to do for us what we would not do for ourselves.

No, these were calls to come to the defense of the common future. They were calls upon the courage, generosity and strength of entire peoples, citizens of every class and condition who were ready to stand against the threat once asked to do so. Our enemies in those times calculated that free people would not rise to the challenge; they were, of course, catastrophically wrong.

Now comes the threat of climate crisis – a threat that is real, rising, imminent, and universal. Once again, it is the 11th hour. The penalties for ignoring this challenge are immense and growing, and at some near point would be unsustainable and unrecoverable. For now we still have the power to choose our fate, and the remaining question is only this: Have we the will to act vigorously and in time, or will we remain imprisoned by a dangerous illusion?

You can read Mr. Gore's speech (in English or Norwegian) here, or even watch a video of it. The speech of Dr. Rajendra K Pachauri, who accepted the prize on behalf of co-winner The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of which he is Chairman, is here.

05 December 2007

Compact Fluorescent Lamps -- The Shape of Things to Come

Compact Fluorescent Lights Make a Difference

One of the easiest ways to save energy, save money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to use compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) instead of old-fashioned incandescent bulbs.

Compact fluorescent bulbs use between a fifth and a quarter as much electricity to produce the same amount of light. They also last six times as long or more. (For hard-to-reach bulbs this is a real advantage. Take it from someone who has to climb a ladder and stand on the top step to reach some of the fixtures in my home.)

True, CFLs look a little different from traditional bulbs. But I am sure that when they were first introduced light bulbs looked weird to people who were used to gas jets. And you can get CFLs that have a globe around them and look more like a bulb.

Here are some of the pros and cons of CFLs:
  • They cost more than incandescent bulbs. (But sometimes utilities or others give them away or sell them at a discount.)
  • Most of them don't work on a dimmer. Some of the new ones have overcome this problem, but check the packaging carefully if you want to use it on a dimmer switch.
  • Some of them give light of a slightly different color than incandescent bulbs do, usually a little less yellow. Newer models are overcoming this problem. They come in both "cool" and "warm" types.
  • Most CFLs don't produce their full light output immediately when you turn them on. They may seem dimmer than they should be for the first minute or two. This is why it makes sense to use CFLs mainly where you usually leave the light on for at least 15 minutes at a time.
  • Since they contain tiny amounts of mercury (like all fluorescent lights) it is better not to just throw them in the trash. Most places have suggestions for safely disposing of CFLs. Check your local options through this EPA site. Some stores (like IKEA) have a place to drop them off.
  • CFLs produce a lot less heat than equivalent incandescent bulbs. You can put your hand on a lighted CFL and not burn yourself. That's good if you are using air conditioning, but not as good if you are heating the house in winter. In most residential situations this shouldn't make much difference. You will notice that lamps are much cooler to the touch. (My desk lamp here is hardly even warm.) This is great for lights you need close to your work.
  • They come in most of the same sizes and types as incandescent bulbs. You can even get them for "3-way" lamps.
  • Since they take a lot less electricity, if you have a fixture that says "60 Watt Max." and you want more light out of it, you can get it. A 14-Watt CFL gives as much light as a 60-Watt incandescent bulb. A 20-Watt CFL is as bright as a 75-Watt regular bulb.
  • They save money on electricity. (According to the calculator on the One Billion Bulbs site I am saving more than $100 per year.)
  • They last much, much longer.
  • Since they need less electricity, they reduce the greenhouse gas emissions you cause. (I am cutting my emissions by half a ton per year.)
  • They show you care, yet they are much cheaper than a Prius.
So next time you have to replace a light bulb, consider using a compact fluorescent. You'll be saving money and helping the environment. That's green living.

(For more information about CFLs try the Energy Star site. If you want to join others in making the switch, check out the One Billion Bulbs project.)

29 November 2007

Metric Needed: Dumb Climate Damage

How much damage do dumb, inconsiderate, wasteful acts of greenhouse gas emission do?

polar bear picture from http://www.greenpeace.org/international/photosvideos/photos/polar-bear-in-arcticWhen someone roars away from a light to get to another red light a block away, how much damage is done by the excess greenhouse gases emitted compared to more climate-friendly driving? One polar bear? Two? One-tenth of a polar bear? We obviously need metrics to make clear what they are doing.

If someone causes the emission of greenhouse gases equivalent to one kilogram of CO2, how much damage does that actually cause?

Well, it is obviously one thousandth the damage done by emission of one tonne CO2e. But how much damage is that, in concrete terms any idiot can understand? One measure is in dollars and cents. What someone would pay for you not to emit that kilo of CO2e,? That's currently about $0.0017 according to the Chicago Climate Exchange. If you purchased carbon offsets to cover that kilo it would cost you about $0.015.

Leaving a 75-Watt bulb burning for ten hours when not needed uses 0.75 kWh of electricity, and generates about 0.45 kg of CO2 (U.S. average o.6 kg CO2 emitted per kWh electricity generated).

Burning one gallon of gasoline unnecessarily (getting one mile per gallon worse mileage than you could have gotten while driving 20 miles, or driving 20 or so extra miles) generates about 9 kg of CO2.

But how much damage does that kilogram of CO2 really do?

This is a complex question of the marginal damage caused by one additional kilogram of CO2. There are lots of studies that quantify this in terms of dollar costs, but none I can find put it in more emotive terms.

"Business as usual" or action to reduce emissions?

The Technical Summary of IPCC Working Group 2 Fourth Assessment Report examined several scenarios of future greenhouse gas emissions and impacts on climate. The A scenarios are more like "business as usual", while the B scenarios incorporate more aggressive efforts to reduce emissions.

The predicted consequences of these various scenarios are shown in the graph below.

How about this for a metric: The thoughtless, lazy, selfish emission of excess greenhouse gases contributes to the difference between the A and the B scenario forecasts. By 2050 those drivers of Hummers (14 miles per gallon) would have caused about an extra 0.5 degree of global warming. That additional warming would be related to the release of about a billion extra tonnes of CO2 into the air.

It would be that billion extra tonnes of emissions which could push us past the possible "tipping point" of 2 degrees warming above pre-industrial levels. Maybe we should attribute all the additional consequences to those extra kilograms emitted in haste, ignorance, or greed.

The difference between less than 2 degrees of global warming compared to pre-industrial levels and more than 2 degrees is very significant. More than 2 degrees warming takes us into the range of very severe and much more unpredictable impacts of climate change. Those impacts still fall mainly on the poor, however.

(Note that none of the scenarios used by the IPCC will keep us from breaking the 2 degree barrier. To reach equilibrium at less than 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels (less than about 450 ppm CO2) we must reduce global CO2 emissions absolutely to about one-half of 1990 levels.)

Putting a human face on global warming

The United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report 2007/2008--Fighting climate change: Human Solidarity in a divided world, published last Tuesday, gives us some information we can use to evaluate impacts in human terms.

One finding is that some 360 million people may become climate change refugees over the next few decades. These are poor people who will be driven from their homes by floods, drought, disease, sea level increases, declines in crop productivity, etc. This doesn't count people who will have died due to starvation, disease or other causes directly connected to global warming.

360 million displaced / 1 billion tonnes excess emission: that's about a third of a ruined life per tonne, or the amount of excess CO2 emitted by driving a car that gets 20 mile per gallon instead of 25 miles per gallon for 10,000 miles (less than one year's driving, for the average driver).

That 5 mpg penalty you are paying for aggressive driving, a bulbous car, or using a pick-up truck or SUV where a car would do--That's uprooting someone who has practically nothing and making sure they have absolutely nothing.


21 August 2007

How Big A Problem Is Climate Change?

Will Global Climate Change be a Big Problem for Future Generations? And Who Cares?

Nearly everybody agrees that global climate change is real, and that it is mostly caused by our recent and continuing emissions of greenhouse gases. But how big a problem will it be? We have to answer this question in order to figure out how much to spend today to reduce the pace and impact of global warming in the future. Here's the question:
How much are you willing to give up today to minimize the costs human-caused global climate change will impose on future generations?
The answer to this question depends on two factors:
  • How great will be the costs to society in the future due to climate change we could have prevented today? And
  • How much do we care about the costs borne by future generations?
Most people will say, "Of course I care a lot about the pain I might be causing future generations!" But the evidence does not support this. How much would you pay today to prevent a million children from dying during the coming year from a cause that you could mitigate?
About one million children die of malaria annually in Africa. Distribution of insecticide-treated bed netting could prevent hundreds of millions of cases of malaria next year. To provide every susceptible family in Africa with such protection would cost around $1 billion (about 200 million nets at $5 each). The people of the rich nations of the world are evidently not willing to spend this amount (your share, if you live in a developed country, would be about $1).
Do we care more about future generations than we do about our fellow Earthlings alive today? Would you give up a dollar today to prevent a million people from dying due to the impact of global warming in 2100?

How Much Will It Cost Future Generations?

There are many studies attempting to quantify the losses future generations will suffer due to the climate change we and our forebears are causing. Two of the best are the Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change and a recent study by Resources for the Future. These reports use different methods to come to similar conclusions:
Stern: "Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more."
Sterner and Persson, RFF: "Total damages in our case amount to slightly more than 2 percent of the GDP for a temperature increase of 2.5°C."
Current world GDP is about $65 trillion (figured at purchasing power parity). A 2% loss today would be about $1.3 trillion (1.3x1012). Five percent would be more than $3 trillion. And that cost would probably not be distributed equitably, but would fall most heavily on the poor.

How Much Would It Cost Us Today To Spare Future Generations That Pain?

Of course the rich countries would be the ones which would have to make the sacrifice today, because:
  • They have the money (people living on $1 per day can't afford to give up any consumption--they'd starve), and
  • They caused the problem.
The Stern Report estimates that to avoid a 5% or greater loss of consumption on the part of our successors in the future we would have to give up only 1% of consumption today. ("In contrast, the costs of action -- reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change -- can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.") One percent of current global GDP is about $700 billion. The per capita share of that sum for people in the developed countries would be $700 per year.

Would you be willing to give up a few hundred dollars a year -- about $2 per day (say in carbon taxes) to prevent the worst effects of future global warming? Let your elected representatives know your answer.


Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change

RFF analysis

Malaria in Africa

More Insecticide-Treated Nets Needed For African Households

CIA World Factbook

01 August 2007

More Hurricanes Due To Global Warming

hurricane warning flags image from www.srh.noaa.gov

Global Warming Means More Atlantic Tropical Storms and Hurricanes

A previous post discussed how global warming seems to be increasing the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes. At that time it wasn't certain that the number of tropical storms in the Atlantic was increasing along with global warming, too.

graph of increasing storm numbers from NCAR press release at http://www.ucar.edu/news/releases/2007/hurricanefrequency.shtmlNow the evidence is in. Recent work shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic over the past century, and especially over the last 20 years. More detailed information is available in a slide presentation in this large pdf file.

The year 2006 was a respite after a series of recent major storms in 2004 and 2005, with only five hurricanes and four other named tropical storms. But it would have been an above average hurricane season in the early 1900s.

"These numbers are a strong indication that climate change is a major factor in the increasing number of Atlantic hurricanes," says study co-author Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. (See NCAR press release.) Although our ability to count tropical storms has improved a lot with the development of aircraft and satellites, "We are of the strong and considered opinion that data errors alone cannot explain the sharp, high-amplitude transitions between the climatic regimes, each with an increase of around 50 percent in cyclone and hurricane numbers, and their close relationship with SSTs," the authors state. (SSTs = sea surface temperatures, which have increased about 0.7 degrees C. in the Atlantic hurricane-forming region over the last century. The area of warm water has expanded also.)

Here is the abstract of the recent article by Holland and Webster
We find that long-period variations in tropical cyclone and hurricane frequency over the past century in the North Atlantic Ocean have occurred as three relatively stable regimes separated by sharp transitions. Each regime has seen 50% more cyclones and hurricanes than the previous regime and is associated with a distinct range of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Overall, there appears to have been a substantial 100-year trend leading to related increases of over 0.7°C in SST and over 100% in tropical cyclone and hurricane numbers. It is concluded that the overall trend in SSTs, and tropical cyclone and hurricane numbers is substantially influenced by greenhouse warming. Superimposed on the evolving tropical cyclone and hurricane climatology is a completely independent oscillation manifested in the proportions of tropical cyclones that become major and minor hurricanes. This characteristic has no distinguishable net trend and appears to be associated with concomitant variations in the proportion of equatorial and higher latitude hurricane developments, perhaps arising from internal oscillations of the climate system. The period of enhanced major hurricane activity during 1945–1964 is consistent with a peak period in major hurricane proportions.

07 July 2007

Wildfires in the West and Global Warming

Wildfire is seen approaching Old Faithful Village, Yellowstone National Park, in 1988. CREDIT: NPS PHOTO from http://www.sciencemag.org/content/vol313/issue5789/images/medium/927-2-med.gif

Fires Increase Due To Global Temperature Rise

While everybody talks about the threat posed by stronger hurricanes due to global warming (see this post at Science In Action), the greater danger in the American West is from increased number and severity of forest fires. (Fires are likely to increase in other regions as well: Australia, the Mediterranean basin, and so forth.)

The increase in temperature (0.9 degrees C over recent decades) is primarily responsible for the significant increase in wildfires in the West since the '80s.
Recent research shows that warmer temperatures appear to be increasing the duration and intensity of the wildfire season in the West. Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986. A similar increase in wildfire activity has been reported in Canada from 1920 to 1999.

Research by Westerling et al. (2006) shows that the increase in western U.S. forest wildfires is correlated with warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced precipitation associated with warmer temperatures, reduced snowpack and earlier spring snowmelts, and longer, drier summer fire seasons. Climate models indicate that these trends are part of plausible climate change scenarios (Running 2006), implying a further increase in the risk of large, damaging forest wildfires in parts of the western U.S.

These simulations unanimously project June to August temperature increases of 2° to 5°C by 2040 to 2069 for western North America. The simulations also project precipitation decreases of up to 15% for that time period. Even assuming the most optimistic result of no change in precipitation, a June to August temperature increase of 3°C would be roughly three times the spring-summer temperature increase that Westerling et al. have linked to the current trends. Wildfire burn areas in Canada are expected to increase by 74 to 118% in the next century, and similar increases seem likely for the western United States. (Running, 2006)
An analysis by Westerling & Bryant predicts significant increases in wildfire damage in Northern California forests as global warming continues. They conclude that this may make "wildfire a particularly important source of potential climate change impacts for the state."

So though you might escape hurricanes or sea-level rise by moving to the foothills, you can't run from global warming.

The Really Bad News

According to Running (2006), wildfires add an estimated 3.5 × 1015 g to atmospheric carbon emissions each year, or roughly 40% as much as fossil fuel carbon emissions. If climate change is increasing wildfire increases in this source of carbon emissions will accelerate the buildup of greenhouse gases and could provide a feed-forward acceleration of global warming.

In other words, the warmer it gets, the more and larger wildfires in western forests, releasing more CO2 to the atmosphere, resulting in more global warming, which might increase fire numbers, duration, and intensity even more.

In the long run the increase in wildfires in western montane forests will change the composition of plant communities, so that in time the Rockys of Colorado may look like the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico look today.


Westerling et al., 2006. Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity.

Running, 2006. Is Global Warming Causing More, Larger Wildfires?

Westerling & Bryant, in prep. Climate Change and Wildfire in California.

18 June 2007

Is CleanTech Only About Money?

Let's Put the Clean in CleanTech

picture of audience, photo credit Chip KrauskopfI was at a cleantech event recently, and the organizer asked the audience (about 300), "How many of you came by public transportation?" I saw two hands go up. And this was in California, where even the Governor's has reduced his Hummer collection by 50%.

Almost all those investors, entrepreneurs, students, job-seekers, inventors, and other members of the cleantech ecosystem drove their cars to the event. (Some of the guys from CalCars did come in their plug-in-hybrid.)

Everybody is eager to make money off cleantech, but few are willing to make the changes in their own behaviors that will contribute as much as new technology to slowing global warming. And this crowd was probably better-informed about global warming than your average bunch.

I am sure the transition from a carbon-wasting economy to a carbon-sparing one will create a lot of wealth. Probably it will increase the total wealth of society as a whole. (Especially if you take into account the costs our descendants would incur trying to deal with a warmer world if we don't do enough today.) But whiz-bang new technology can't control global warming by itself. We have to change our behaviors.

And one of the most carbon-intensive behaviors we have is driving ourselves everywhere whenever we want to. Even if we can afford it (even after the cost of fuel increases substantially, as it has to do) we have to live differently. I sort of feel those in the cleantech sector should set an example.

So plan your events in locations which can be reached by public transportation, and at hours when buses run.

If we commit to a less carbon-intensive future we can all get there together.

30 May 2007

Why Does California Lead In Cleantech?

The Entrepreneurial Culture Meets Environmental Awareness

A recent article in The Economist noted that North America is the leader in venture investment in clean technology, and Silicon Valley is the leading region within North America. Last year VCs poured $2.9 billion into cleantech investments in North America (the figures came from Cleantech Network), four times more than in Europe. And of that $2.9 billion, about a quarter was connected to Northern California. Massachusetts came second with about 9%, Texas got 7%, and the rest of North America the other 62%.

Why does California lead?

  1. It's a big state, with a lot of energy-hungry people and a lot of natural resources. There are counties in California that are bigger than Massachusetts. On the other hand, Texas is big too, and cleantech investing is just getting started there.

  2. It's where the money is. Billions earned in electronics and dot-coms are being invested in cleantech.

  3. Top-notch university research and government labs, including Stanford, Berkeley, Davis, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and others, generate technologies that entrepreneurs can use. And the region's business schools turn out entrepreneurial-minded graduates.

  4. Lots of experienced venture capitalists are headquartered there.

  5. Wide support for environmental concerns across political parties and social segments enables leadership in stricter environmental regulation. (California's CO2 emissions have been level in recent years, while population has grown.)

  6. It has The California Clean Tech Open -- a world-class business plan competition that gives budding entrepreneurs and clean technology businesses a chance at $600,000 in prizes and priceless recognition and encouragement.

The California Clean Tech Open represents the efforts of hundreds of volunteer organizers, backed by the financial support of private industry, non-profits, and government agencies. It's goal is to keep California in the lead in clean technology, to help small companies with good ideas get to the next level, and to save the world.

As an example of the unique capabilities of such an approach, next Monday the California Clean Tech Open and SRI International will put on a Technology and Entrepreneur Matching Event to bring the cutting-edge science of the regions labs and universities together with the creative energies of its potential entrepreneurs. New commercialization ideas and partnerships will result, if we're lucky.

It's working.

GCF Associates is glad to be a part of the CCTO Corps of Volunteers.

Calling All California Clean Tech Entrepreneurs!

The California Clean Tech Open is Here

This is the richest clean tech business plan competition in the West, with $600,000 in prizes in six categories.

"The California Clean Tech Open convenes the state's best and brightest minds to develop technological solutions to some extremely complex and important problems. This is a competition with no losers - all of California, and the rest of the world, benefit when natural resources are used more efficiently." -- Art Rosenfeld, California Energy Commissioner

The entry period ends 30 June, so find out more now. (Early bird reduced-fee entries due by 15 June.)

Technology and Entrepreneur Matching Event 4 June

To get potential entrants and other entrepreneurs together the California Clean Tech Open will hold a Matching Event on Monday 6 June at SRI in Menlo Park, 4pm to 7pm. (Details here.) Researchers and licensing officers from SRI, PARC, Stanford, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore Lab, Sandia, EPRI, U. C. Berkeley, and U. C. Davis will present cool new clean technologies coming out of their labs. Now is your chance to meet them and find out what is new. And meet other entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs like yourself. You should register in advance at the CCTO site.

"The California Clean Tech Open Matching Event is a great way for entrepreneurs to find technologies that can set them apart in this ultra-competitive marketplace,” said Bob Cart, CEO and founder of GreenVolts, a utility-scale solar energy company. “Our collaboration with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been a crucial part of our ability to deliver an ultra-efficient solar energy alternative to utility companies and is a great example of how a partner technology can help a young company stand out from the crowd.” GreenVolts was the winner of last year's competition in the Renewables category. They won $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in services, and garnered priceless exposure and recognition.

Maybe this year's winners will meet up at Monday's Matching Event.

19 May 2007

A"maize"ing Confusion

sweet corn image from www.tunbridgewells.gov.uk

Gripe of the Week--It's Not That Type of Corn!

Have you ever noticed that articles in the press about ethanol always feature a picture of an ear of sweet corn? Drives me crazy. Just to clear things up, here are notes to journalists.

There are different types of corn(maize). (Check here or here for a sense of the range of types in this long-domesticated crop.) "Sweet corn" (right, above) is genetically different from other corn: less of its sugar is converted to starch. We harvest it immature and eat it as "corn on the cob", or its shelled kernels as a vegetable.

Yellow dent corn (left, below) is a type where the harder endosperm encloses a starchy center, which shrinks as it dries, giving the characteristic dent in each kernel. This is the kind of corn most widely used in North America as feed and for producing ethanol.dent corn image from www.heartlandscience.org/agrifood/yelcorn.htm

Other types of corn, especially food-grade yellow and white dent and "flint" corns are used to make food products such as Fritos® and tortillas. "Flint" corn has a hard endosperm suitable for milling into grits or flour. Popcorn is another completely distinct type.

All of these types of corn, and many more for many other uses, were developed by indigenous Americans before the arrival of Europeans. Dent corn is a hybrid of two types developed by native Americans.

Insisting on accurate illustration may seem like a quibble. But it's as if you were writing an article about "oil" and the picture was of petroleum while the article was about cooking oil. Or vice versa. It makes the writer of the article (who may have had no role in selecting the accompanying illustrations) look like an idiot. It causes the reader to lose faith in the whole publication.

08 May 2007

Trading Pollution

What are all those carbon credits, offsets, and things?

There has been carbon trading for years: I'll give you a ducat for that coal, a riyal for that oil, a pew for that tree. This is commodity trading.

What is new is trading various derivatives related to the carbon in a fuel, the carbon dioxide emitted by a process, the production of renewable energy, or the sequestration or reduction of CO2 output.

In case you have been as confused as I have by all the permutations, here is a breakdown:

Emissions TradingCarbon CreditRenewable Energy CertificateCarbon OffsetCarbon Tax
"Cap and Trade" -- tradable right to exceed government-set quotaTradable permit to emit CO2 issued by a seller who is reducing CO2 emission."Green Tag" -- tradable evidence that electricity was produced by approved renewable sourcesTradable assurance that someone else has reduced CO2 emissions by a certain amount A tax paid to government based on carbon content of fuel
Transfers wealth from greater polluters to lesser polluters in a regulated system of allowancesTransfers wealth from carbon emitter to carbon emissions reducer or mitigator.Transfers wealth from electricity consumer buying from the grid to generator using renewable technology selling to the grid elsewhere.Transfers wealth from a CO2 emitter to owner of a project that reduces CO2 emissions. Project may sequester carbon, or produce energy by less carbon intensive means, or prevent the emission of carbon as from change in land use.Transfers wealth from users of fuel to the government.
Right to emit a given quantity of pollutant above allowanceRight to emit one tonne of CO2Essentially a premium paid above standard rates for production of electricity by renewable sources. Makes production by renewable means more profitable.Gives you the right to feel OK even though you are emitting CO2. May provide additional revenue to emission-reducing project.Puts a cost on the negative externalities associated with using CO2-emitting fuel. Makes reducing such use more economically attractive.

Any Questions?

These posts are thoughts that have occurred to us here at GCF Associates and Global Climate Fund. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or ideas for future posts.

22 April 2007

Carbon Offsets -- Can They Help?

photo of jet airliner from a NASA site

Carbon Offsets May or May Not Offset Any Carbon

When you pay for a "carbon offset" the money goes to a company or non-profit project (maybe through a broker or other agent, who takes a cut). That company or project is doing something that sequesters carbon or generates low-carbon energy. The money it gets by selling offsets helps the economics of the project.

People often buy offsets because it is easier or cheaper for them to do so than to actually reduce the carbon their activities emit. For example, you may really want to take a plane trip. When that plane flys it emits CO2. (Of course, it would emit essentially the same amount of CO2 if you stayed home.) You can "offset" the carbon emissions your trip caused by arranging, for example, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else.

The key to getting carbon offsets to make sense is: Whatever you buy when you buy the carbon offset must actually result in the absorption of the amount of CO2 you produce, or the substitution of energy made without emitting CO2 for carbon-intensive energy, or by capture of emissions that would have been released if you hadn't chipped in. But what if:
  • The trees would have been planted anyway, even if you had not bought the offset.

  • The trees are to be planted in a northern clime where they will absorb more winter sunlight than the snow they cover, thus actually increasing global warming in spite of the carbon they absorb? (See this study and these comments.)

  • The trees are planted in what was a tropical peat bog or forest, and more CO2 is emitted when planting them than they will ever absorb? (This study)

  • The electricity generated by the wind-power project you supported will not substitute for carbon-based power, but just add to it, driving down the price of electricity and encouraging consumption?


There are certification schemes to assure that at least some offsets don't have these problems. The key is that the projects provide "additionality". That means that they offer additional carbon reduction that wouldn't have been achieved without your purchase of an offset. Here is the complicated method used to determine additionality.

In general, if you want your carbon offsets to really reduce CO2 emissions, they should comply with the criteria established by The Gold Standard, which specifically excludes tree-planting and similar schemes, or other strict certification programs. This paper by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF explains why.

How do you find an offset that will really reduce global carbon in a way that will make up for the greenhouse gasses you continue to produce? The Environmental Defense "Fight Global Warming" page lists some offset projects they have vetted.

But wouldn't it be better for you to actually reduce the amount of carbon your activities emit? At worst, carbon offsets provide a way for wealthy people to ease their consciences when they pursue carbon-intensive activities. At best, they compensate for those activities, so we come out even. The only way to come out ahead (that is, to actually reduce your carbon emissions) is to change your lifestyle.


Carbon offsets can help, but only if you do your homework. And they can't do the whole job.

Some questions:

  • Should new nuclear power plants be able to sell carbon offsets?

  • Currently, British Airways offers to arrange carbon offsets for its passengers (the passengers pay for them). Why doesn't it simply buy enough offsets to make the flight carbon neutral and add the cost to the price of the tickets? (Answer obvious: people would fly cheaper, carbon-positive flights with competitors.)

  • Could you make money setting up a gas station that bought carbon offsets to make all the fuel it sold carbon neutral, and added their cost to the cost of the gas? How much more would the gas cost? Would anybody buy it? (Business plan idea here -- maybe you could enter the California CleanTech Open and win $100,000.)

  • What if the legislature mandated that all gas stations do this, so that the cost of fuel would reflect its true environmental impact?

These posts are thoughts that have occurred to us here at GCF Associates and Global Climate Fund. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or ideas for future posts.

Here are some useful links:


David Suzuki Foundation has some good links

10 April 2007

How Green Is Ethanol?

ethanol corn logo from ISU Society of Automotive Engineers http://sae.stuorg.iastate.edu/formula/gallery/Sponsor-Pictures/corn_logo

Does Corn-Based Ethanol Help the Environment?

How much energy do you save if you run your car, truck or SUV on an ethanol blend instead of ordinary gasoline?
None. It takes the same amount of energy to move you and your vehicle no matter what form of fuel you use. The only way to save energy is to get a more efficient vehicle (that gets higher mileage) or to drive less.
How much fossil petroleum (oil) do you save if you run your car, truck or SUV on an ethanol blend instead of ordinary gasoline?
Not much. One gallon of corn ethanol displaces 0.67 gallons of gasoline. (Ethanol has 0.7 times the energy content of gasoline, and it takes about 0.03 gallons of petroleum fuels to make a gallon of ethanol from corn.) So if you use E10 (a blend of 10% ethanol with 90% gasoline) you would save 0.0028 gallons of fossil petroleum for every mile you drive. If you drive the U.S. average of 12,500 miles per year, you would reduce fossil petroleum consumption by close to 35 gallons. Per year. Total.

If you used E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, for which you would need a "flex-fuel" vehicle, which make up only 2% of the U.S. passenger and light truck vehicle fleet) you would save 0.28 gallons of fossil petroleum fuel for each mile you drive. For 12,500 miles a year, that is 3,700 gallons. If all the 4 million flex-fuel vehicles in the U.S. actually used E85 (less than 1% do), together they would reduce demand for gasoline from fossil petroleum by 15 million gallons annually. That is about 0.014% of total gasoline consumption in the U.S. (one one-hundredth of one percent).
How much greenhouse gas emissions do you save by using ethanol?
We don't know. If you use E10 you either increase greenhouse gas emissions by about 2%, or reduce them by about 2%, or somewhere in between, depending on how the greenhouse gas contributions of the byproducts of ethanol production from corn are accounted for. Basically, using E10 instead of gasoline cuts your greenhouse gas output by very little, and might even increase it a bit.

If you use E85, you either increase greenhouse gas emissions by about 20% or reduce them by about 20%, again depending on how you define the system boundaries. How much is a matter of opinion. Of course, practically nobody uses E85 – There are no E85 stations within 100 miles of Los Angeles, for example. (see E85 Refueling)


Do the math. If you want to reduce petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions you have to change what you drive, how you drive, and how much you drive. Switching fuels won’t make much difference.

These posts are thoughts that have occurred to us here at GCF Associates and Global Climate Fund. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or ideas for future posts.

A principal source for the analysis above was Review of Corn Based Ethanol Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. T. Groode. LFEE Working Paper 07-1, June 2006, from The Laboratory For Energy and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Good summary of Groode’s analysis in energy & environment, October 2006, the newsletter of the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.

03 April 2007

How Much Carbon Dioxide from Biodiesel?

Biodiesel puts CO2 in the Atmosphere -- But How Much?

soybean plant, borrowed from http://technolog.it.umn.edu/technolog/spring2002/biodiesel.htmlBiodiesel is made from vegetable oil or animal fat. In the U.S., most of it is made from soybean oil. This makes it a "renewable" or "alternative" liquid transport fuel.

The carbon dioxide released by burning biodiesel in your vehicle was originally taken out of the air by soybean plants. So in some sense biodiesel is "carbon neutral" and doesn't contribute to increasing atmospheric CO2 as much as the regular diesel made from fossil petroleum.

To produce one gallon of biodiesel takes about 18 kg of soybeans. But the soybeans are only part of the soybean plants that produced them. The soybean harvest makes up only about one-quarter of the biomass of the soybeans the farmer grew. So the total biomass grown to make a gallon of biodiesel is about 75 kg.

The soybean plants made themselves out of air, using the energy in sunlight to fix CO2 into carbohydrates and lipids. Growing that 75 kg of soybean plants took about 175 kg of CO2 out of the air. (The plants spat the O2 out again, and replaced it with the lighter element hydrogen.)

So that gallon of biodiesel started off as 175 kg of CO2. To produce the soybeans, crush them to separate their oil, manufacture the oil into biodiesel, and transport the products among these operations took some energy derived from fossil fuels. Assuming this energy came half from natural gas and half from liquid fuels, these fuels contained 700 grams of carbon. When they were burned they released about 2.5 kg of CO2. (True, the transportation fuels could have been biodiesel -- the impact of such substitution is left to the student as an excercise.)

Where the Carbon Goes

So about 177 kg of CO2 is embodied in the gallon of biodiesel, and all of it will be released as the biodiesel is produced and used. Here is where it goes:
  • About 30 kg of plant residue is left in the field. Eventually it decomposes and releases 110 kg of CO2. This is more than 60% of the 177 kg of CO2 we started with.

  • Soybean oil makes up only about 18% of the soybean, by weight. After the oil is extracted what is left is "soybean meal", a valuable protein-rich animal feed. The Soybean meal from our one-biodiesel-gallon's worth of soybeans weighs about 15 kg and contains about 13 or 14 kg of carbon. Eventually it will be digested by animals, broken down, and converted back into CO2 (it may have to go through several animals to finally be CO2 again). That will yield about 53 kg of CO2, about 30% of what we started with.

  • When the soybean oil is converted into biodiesel there is some glycerine produced as a byproduct. When that glycerine is eventually broken down it will release another 850 grams of CO2 (less than 1%).

  • The fossil energy consumed in the growing, transporting, and processing to get biodiesel to the vehicle's fuel tank produces about 2.5 kg of CO2 (about 1.5%).

  • Finally we get to the biodiesel. One gallon of biodiesel has about 2.8 kg of carbon in it, and when it is burned it will produce about 10 kg of CO2. that is about 5.5% of the CO2 fixed by the soybeans and burned to make them into fuel.

picture of biodiesel-powered bus, by U.S. Department of Energy: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Efficiency of Biodiesel

So in one sense we used agricultural and industrial ingenuity to convert 700 grams of carbon in the form of fossil fuels into 2700 grams of carbon in biodiesel. That is like multiplying that fossil carbon 3.8 times!

On the other hand, the process was shockingly inefficient, turning 50 kg of carbon fixed by plants into 2.7 kg of carbon in liquid fuel form. Only 5.5% of the total fixed carbon ended up powering a vehicle!


It all depends on how you look at it.

These posts are thoughts that have occurred to us here at GCF Associates and Global Climate Fund. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or ideas for future posts.

19 March 2007

Corn (Maize) Ethanol in America -- Facts & Figures

Ethanol Changes Corn Market, But Doesn't Reduce Petroleum Use

corn futures chart from Chicago Board of Trade site http://www.cbot.com/cbot/pub/page/0,,1213+chart,00.html?symb=C&month=1!&year=&period=W&varminutes=&study=&study0=&study1=&study2=&study3=&bartype=LINE&bardensity=LOWCorn Price, $/bushel, Chicago Board of Trade nearby contract

An increasing fraction of the U.S. corn (maize) crop is being converted to fuel alcohol, with predictable effects on U.S. Agriculture: higher corn prices (as shown in the chart above), higher meat prices, and more money in farmers' pockets.

The map below shows the location of current ethanol plants (green dots) and plants under construction or expansion (yellow dots). As you can see, capacity is going to about double over the next few years.

map of ethanol plants from Iowa State University http://www.card.iastate.edu/research/bio/tools/ethanol.aspxU.S. Ethanol Plants, source: CARD, ISU

The two charts below show USDA projections for corn use and corn prices over the next ten years. The production of corn will increase, responding to the higher price. Virtually all the additional corn will be converted to ethanol. Much of this additional corn production will come at the expense of soybean planting, and will therefore decrease the production of soybeans. (Biodiesel production will have an additional effect, to be discussed in another post.)

The fraction of the U.S. corn crop used to make fuel ethanol is projected to more than double over the next few years, from 14% to more than 30%.

graph projected corn use, U.S.

graph projected corn price, U.S.

Little to No Impact on Fossil Petroleum Use

In spite of this apparent surge in ethanol production from corn, the proportion of total petroleum use that will be supplied by ethanol will only grow from 1% to 2% over the next ten years. (See data at the Energy Information Administration: Renewables Consumption By Sector and Petroleum Supply and Demand.)

Unless we change our ways, we will be burning more oil ten years from now than we burn today.

These posts are thoughts that have occurred to us here at GCF Associates and Global Climate Fund. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or ideas for future posts.

10 March 2007

Daylight "Savings" Time?

picture of alarm clock from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clock

What Does Daylight Savings Time Save?

The United States is starting "daylight savings time" (summer time) some weeks early this year, and will continue it longer in the autumn. (Canada is forced to follow suit -- sorry.)

This change was decreed by the "Energy Policy Act of 2005" (pdf here; html here). Besides the $2.2 billion in direct spending this act handed out (estimated over its first 5 years by the Congressional Budget Office) and the $7.9 billion in tax breaks it authorized over the same period, Congress in its wisdom decided to do something about energy independence and global warming by adding an additional month of daylight savings time.

Nearly every statement by a politician about this change included these words: "will save the equivalent of 100,000 barrels of oil a day." (See the 2005 Energy Conference Report pdf, or the press release of Congressman Fred Upton [R-Michigan], who introduced this provision).

This figure comes from a study done by the Department of Transportation in the '70s. I can't find the original study, but it was quoted in testimony of then-acting deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy Linda Lawson before House Science Committee in 2001. Her testimony in part:
I want to note that these studies are over 25 years old and were limited in scope. Congress captured many of the benefits identified in our studies in the legislative changes to daylight saving time enacted in 1986. There have been dramatic changes in lifestyle and commerce since we completed our studies that raise serious questions about extrapolating conclusions from our studies into today’s world.

. . .

Let me now briefly summarize the technical findings regarding daylight saving time benefits. The studies are over twenty-five years old and have not been updated.

Our 1975 study concluded that daylight saving time might result in electricity savings of 1 percent in March and April, equivalent to roughly 100,000 barrels of oil daily over the two months. These savings were calculated from Federal Power Commission data for only four daylight saving time transitions -- in the winter, spring and fall of the 1974 - 1975 experiment. Due to the limited data sample, the findings were judged "probable", rather than conclusive. Theoretical studies of home heating fuel consumption identified small savings due to daylight saving time. No potential increases in travel demand and gasoline use due to daylight savings time were identified at that time. The lack of actual data precluded an estimation of net daylight saving time energy savings.

. . .

Before making changes to daylight saving time, we urge the Congress to consider the costs and benefits of such changes. As I have noted, DOT’s studies are over 25 years old. New studies must consider impacts on uniformity, impacts on coordination of transportation and commerce, impacts on transportation safety, and net energy impacts. The studies must consider the impact of changes on electrical lighting use, heating energy use, air conditioning use, and transportation energy use, including the potential for increased travel demand resulting from more evening daylight and increased gasoline use.
But apparently Congress focused on the "equivalent of 100,000 barrels" and extended daylight savings time. Note that 100,000 barrels is 0.5% of daily petroleum consumption in the U.S. In fact saving electricity doesn't save much oil, since most electricity is generated with coal or natural gas. Daylight savings time can have no real impact on oil imports.

No Real Savings

More recent studies find very slight and uncertain savings, or none at all.

Does Extending Daylight Saving Time Save Energy? Evidence From an Australian Experiment by Ryan Kellogg and Hendrik Wolff, January 2007:
Given the economic and environmental imperatives driving efforts to reduce energy consumption, policy-makers are considering extending Daylight Saving Time (DST). Doing so is widely believed to reduce electricity use. Our research challenges this belief, as well as the studies underlying it. We offer a new test of whether extending DST decreases energy consumption by evaluating an extension that occurred in the state of Victoria, Australia in 2000. Using half-hourly panel data on electricity consumption and a triple-difference treatment effect model, we show that, while extending DST does reduce electricity consumption in the evening, the increased demand in the morning cancels this benefit out. We statistically reject electricity savings of 1% or greater at a 1% significance level.
Electricity Savings From Early Daylight Saving Time by Adrienne Kandal, February 2007:
There is no clear evidence that electricity will be saved from the earlier start to daylight saving time on March 11, but the 7 p.m. peak load will probably drop on the order of 3% for the remainder of March, lowering capacity requirements. This could be negated by a new morning spike as it was in Australia in 2000, but that appears unlikely. In any event, capacity constraints usually do not occur in March and early November.

. . .

In summary, it seems very likely that our peak load will drop in the evening, possible that we will save a fraction of a percent of total electricity use, and possible but not very likely that we will see a morning electricity spike that would negate evening savings. Still, California might want be prepared for a possible morning mini-peak as it makes forecasts for electricity needs. Victoria’s failure to prepare for its morning peak caused morning price spikes.


Politicians want to be seen to be doing something about energy problems, but don't seem to care if their actions really help or not. If we want something done, we will have to do it ourselves.

These posts are thoughts that have occurred to us here at GCF Associates and Global Climate Fund. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or ideas for future posts.